Eight people were fatally shot in Denver in the first week of July 2020, but no lawmakers called Jason McBride, a leader in gang violence prevention in Denver and Aurora, to ask what was happening. The silence continued the next week, when another eight died in shootings.
National news did not cover the violence and there were no city-wide vigils. Nonprofits didn’t raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the victims, most were Black and Latino.
“Matter fact, the first 28 days of the year in 2020, we had a shooting every day,” McBride told The Denver Post. “And we’re sitting here in these communities screaming and crying because our babies are laying in the streets or behind bars. And it’s been like that, and no one has addressed it.”
That’s not the case when there’s a mass shooting like the one that claimed 10 lives last month in Boulder. Policymakers and activists then call for real action at the state Capitol or in Washington, D.C., as opposed to mere thoughts and prayers or nothing at all.
But mass shootings are exceptionally rare, with about three-quarters of all gun deaths in the state coming from suicides and most of the rest from so-called “community violence” incidents and accidents, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
It’s that reality complicating decisions about gun laws, scholars say — do lawmakers want to thwart the next King Soopers or Columbine or address gun violence more holistically? Democrats who control Colorado’s state government are grappling with that now, and appear to be genuinely unsure of what the legislative response should be, and wary of possible political repercussions.
Steve Fenberg, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader whose district includes the Boulder King Soopers, acknowledged that some forms of gun violence are more likely to lead to the kinds of policy talks he’s helping lead because mass shootings are more “jarring to the psyche.”
When people are shot in communities where gun violence is common, Fenberg theorized, “a lot of people think, ‘well, that’s a shame,’ but maybe they don’t see themselves in the shoes of the individuals.”
A shooting every day
Research shows mass shootings in richer communities — like Boulder — are likely to receive more news coverage, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, who studies mass shootings as an associate criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Oswego. Shootings also get more attention if they happen in a place many people assume is safe, like a workplace or a school.
“If it’s different or didn’t fit the mold, it’s more likely to garner more coverage,” she said.
The increase in the number of deadly mass shootings in public places have made many feel like they have only one or two degrees of separation from the violence, said Michelle Bratcher Goodwin, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. That’s how people who live in communities where gun violence is common often feel — that their life might end at any moment.
“It’s a complex form of a trauma, of PTSD, that we don’t give attention to,” Goodwin said. “It’s layer after layer of things that make your existence fragile without the other things that allow other people some sense of relief.”
A historic number of homicides in 2020 combined with a staggering increase in non-fatal shootings meant somebody was killed or injured by gunfire in Denver at least once a day on average last year, police data shows.
The Gun Violence Archive recorded 10 shootings in Colorado last year where at least four people were killed or injured. Overall, six people died, and 47 were injured. Nine of the shootings happened in the Denver metro — several at parties — and one outside a grocery store in Aurora (five people were injured).
A July mass shooting in broad daylight in a park in Denver’s Valverde neighborhood injured nine people — including six children — but there was no statewide or national call for change or large-scale fundraiser..
“It’s like our kids who get shot don’t have the same value as kids who get shot in mass shootings,” McBride said.
The politics of gun regulation
The question for lawmakers, then, is how to make a dent in the gun violence epidemic when it takes so many forms.
Prior to the Boulder shooting, Colorado lawmakers were already advancing two gun bills, one to require “safe storage” of firearms and another setting a timeframe in which people had to report a lost or stolen gun. The plan was to pass those two, plus a third bill designed to limit gun access for domestic abusers, and call it a session.
Already, that’s more work on gun laws than the Colorado statehouse usually handles in a year. There were six years between any new gun laws when in 2019 Democrats instituted a “red flag” law to allow judges to approve the seizure of firearms from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Plus, Democrats paid the price for their 2013 laws on magazine limits and background checks — two, from Pueblo and Colorado Springs, were recalled.
Guns are politically fraught in Colorado due to a fundamental disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over whether violent people or potentially lethal guns are more problematic, said Republican Sen. Jim Smallwood of Douglas County.
“Focusing on guns, I think, is simply misguided. These folks will find other weapons,” Smallwood said, adding that if the Boulder shooter had not accessed firearms, “I think he would’ve driven a van down Pearl Street.”
At the top of the wish list now for many advocates is a ban on “assault-style weapons” in Colorado. Experts on gun violence are clear that such a policy would likely make a difference by limiting some violence, but they’re also clear a ban would hardly be the most impactful way to limit gun deaths.
“That would be arguably useful for harm reduction during mass shootings. In other words, if an attack were to occur, we know a lot of times people can escape during the reloading process,” said Jason Silva, a professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey who studies mass shootings. “The issue is that wouldn’t reduce the number of mass shootings.”
It also would do little to limit community violence or suicides, said David M. Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College and executive director of the National Network for Safe Communities. It’s the same with multi-day waiting periods for gun buyers — something Colorado Democrats are also considering now.
“Waiting periods might make a very small difference with respect to spree shootings because there are probably some instances in which a person would change their mind,” he said. “And they’d make next to no difference with respect to community violence, because most community violence is committed with weapons that are illegally obtained in the first place.”
Recent Colorado history indicates a ban on “assault-style” weapons would be likely to win zero votes from Republican lawmakers, which wouldn’t be a problem for Democrats except that their Senate margin is so small that all but two of 20 would have to support a ban, and that’s far from guaranteed.
The Denver Post spoke with nine Senate Democrats about a potential ban bill, and while several were unequivocally supportive, most said they’d need to see what the legislation looked like. But they did say they’re leaning toward a bill to allow cities to set local gun restrictions that are stronger than the state’s and trying to tighten background checks to deny more people with violent criminal histories from accessing guns.
Ripples of trauma
Gov. Jared Polis has been mostly silent. The Democrat, whose primary residence is just a couple miles from the Boulder King Soopers, avoided a question at a March news conference about support for a “assault-style weapons” ban, and declined to be interviewed for this story.
After the deadly 2012 Aurora theater shooting, Polis’ predecessor, Democratic U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, was hesitant about new gun restrictions at first but later signed laws to limit high-capacity magazines and to strengthen background checks. In mid-2014, he expressed some regret about the legislation in a meeting with county sheriffs.
Sen. Rhonda Fields lives in walking distance from that Aurora movie theater. Her son was also fatally shot in Aurora in 2005 by a man he was scheduled to testify against in a murder trial.
The Democrat wants to see more conversation about individual shootings, which she thinks doesn’t happen because most policymakers never find out about gun violence in their communities.
“If it doesn’t happen in my community and the press isn’t reporting it, or maybe it’s only on the news for like 30 seconds — I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Fields’ history and elected status makes her a resource for people — mostly Black mothers like herself, she said — who are also grieving gun deaths.
“I didn’t realize how many people were impacted because I didn’t think it was gonna happen to me,” she said, “and it did, and once it happened to me I got exposed that this is not a unique problem.”
All types of gun violence send ripples of trauma across communities, said Goodwin with the Irvine School of Law.
Acknowledging that grief and pain is the first step toward healing, she said. While it’s common for that pain to be addressed after a mass shooting, community violence often receives less outside acknowledgement.
“Vulnerable communities in Denver don’t get that,” she said. “Vulnerable communities in the South Side of Chicago and across the country don’t get that. No official comes in to say, ‘This isn’t your fault.’”
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